ST. GEORGE — A Washington City man who curates a podcast that examines historical and contemporary issues surrounding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is facing the prospect of excommunication from the church.
Bill Reel, a father of four and former church bishop, was served Thursday with a notice of a pending church disciplinary council stating that he has been reported to have “participated in conduct unbecoming a member of the Church” and that he has “repeatedly acted in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church and its leaders.” The disciplinary council is scheduled to take place at a church meeting house in Washington City Nov. 27.
Reel conducts the “Mormon Discussions” podcast, a series of audio programs in which he conducts interviews with authors, scholars and historians of Mormonism. The podcast also features monologues by Reel examining often contentious topics in the church, such as the religion’s stance on LGBTQ issues, youth interviews and church political ties with government officials throughout Utah.
With such provocative titles as “Elder Oaks puts the Con in General Conference” and “The Joseph Smith Translation – Revelation or Plagiarism,” the podcast has caught the attention of church leaders on more than one occasion.
However, Reel believes it was his October podcast titled “Elder Holland – Liar Liar Pants on Fire,” where he accused St. George native and top church official Jeffrey R. Holland of lying, that led to the church disciplinary notice.
“I think that one was what really did it,” Reel said during an interview with St. George News.
In the podcast, Reel outlines what he says are five “absolutely demonstrable lies” told by Holland, such as allegedly inflated claims about the church’s growth rate.
Reel says his goal with such podcasts is to “push back against the church’s unhealthiness.”
“There are a lot of mechanisms in our church that prevent healthy conversation and prevent people from being completely open about whatever it is they’re struggling with,” Reel said, explaining that inconsistencies with the church’s narrative of its history are more often than not swept under the rug.
Reel says he is outspoken because he wishes to improve the church, of which he is committed to remain a member.
A convert at the age of 17, Reel’s commitment to the church eventually led him to serve as a bishop of the local church congregation where he previously lived in Ohio.
“Halfway through serving as bishop, I had a faith crisis,” Reel said. “The history’s messy. We don’t treat people that nice at times.”
Though he had his doubts, he said at the time he was committed to helping others cope with their faith crises and conducted “fireside” meetings encouraging those members. Not long after his own faith crisis in 2012, he started the podcast series.
“I wanted a voice for people who were going through that to slow down and validate them and give them some comfort with all the angst that comes along with having a faith crisis,” he said.
Though he clashed with local church leadership in Ohio, he said he was eventually found not to be in apostasy by his stake president — the church’s highest position of local authority — for his early work on the podcast series.
After moving to Southern Utah for a new job opportunity about three years ago, Reel said his interactions with local church authorities became more contentious, eventually culminating in last week’s letter informing him of a formal disciplinary council to take action on what the letter says is his “intensified efforts” to oppose to the church and its leaders.
According to the church, decisions to hold such councils are made by local authorities. However, Reel says he doubts this is the case.
“My stake president acknowledged that he would get a phone call once a month from Salt Lake from the Church Office Building,” he said, referring to the church’s headquarters. “To think that they’re not getting any direction or influence from higher up is just silly.”
Reel said he has reached a point where he “obviously crossed the line.”
“As I’ve become more aggressive in not pulling any punches, the church has begun to say, ‘We’re aware of you and you’re on our radar.’”
The church typically only authorizes its Public Affairs Department to speak with media on behalf of the church, preventing any kind of on-the-record conversation with Reel’s stake president.
St. George News asked church spokesman Eric Hawkins whether the decision to hold Reel’s disciplinary council was made entirely at the local level and how far someone like Reel can go in their criticism of the church before disciplinary action is warranted.
In a statement, Hawkins responded as follows:
Because of the personal nature of Church disciplinary matters and to respect the privacy of those involved, the Church does not provide information about the proceedings. Church discipline is administered by local leaders who are familiar with the individual and his or her circumstances. If helpful, you may refer to this resource on the subject of church discipline.
The church has apparently taken special care with Reel’s forthcoming disciplinary council, implementing guidelines not typically called for in disciplinary proceedings, such as requiring him to sign a confidentiality agreement.
“Those things match up only with how high-profile cases are handled,” Reel said. “You can start to see that the leadership in Salt Lake has its fingers all over it.”
Reel’s disciplinary council allows for a variety of outcomes, and excommunication isn’t a foregone conclusion. However, Reel believes his dismissal is all but certain.
“I think it’s a done-deal. I think I’m going to be excommunicated,” he said, adding that does indeed prefer to remain a member.
“I’m to the point where church is toxic enough where I couldn’t be attending, but I don’t want to be severed from my tribe,” he said, explaining that he, his wife and four children have all opted to stop attending Sunday church meetings as of December 2017.
Reel said his likely dismissal is part of a larger pattern by the church to quiet voices of dissent or those seeking reform, pointing to the recent high-profile excommunication of former church bishop Sam Young.
Young seeks to end the religion’s practice of one-on-one “worthiness interviews” between adolescent youth and lay leaders that often include questions asking whether the youth adheres to church rules regarding sexual activity.
“The church likes to say it has this healthy system to get concerns addressed,” Reel said, “but in reality it doesn’t.”
Church protocol requires that concerns that can’t be addressed by local authorities be relayed to top church officials known as general authorities. But Reel said he never got answers from said leadership.
“Where does anybody go when they have a healthy, positive suggestion to make a change?” he asked. “There’s no viable outlet to have that happen.”
People in faith crises waiting for answers are suffering, Reel said.
“The church likes to pretend like it cares so much about families, and yet the growing suicide rate in Utah is due to almost assuredly the anti-LGBT issue,” he said.
“If we get past the smiles on the outside, the reality is there’s a lot more shadow in people’s lives here in Utah.”
Regardless of the outcome of his disciplinary council, Reel said he will continue to work to improve people’s lives, church members and nonmembers alike. He has been actively involved in helping struggling youth in Southern Utah, recently using his “Mormon Discussions” platform to hold a funding drive for the now-operational youth shelter in St. George.
Reel plans to attend his Nov. 27 disciplinary council where he intends to reiterate his stance against church policies regarding LGBT members.
“I can’t be a quiet guy,” he said. “I can’t sit still when I see someone being hurt unnecessarily.”
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